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Bing Snuggles Up to Baidu, as Microsoft Braves China’s Censorship Perils

Microsoft has forged a deal with Baidu, China’s largest search engine, to provide search functionality in English. The deal comes a year and a half after Google exited China’s search market with much fanfare, announcing it could no longer stomach the censorship the government applied.

By the end of this year, Microsoft’s search engine Bing will be on Baidu’s Web pages.

The deal illustrates what appears to be a growing demand for English-language search in China. Baidu acknowledged as much in comments to the media, adding that it hasn’t done a good job of providing such functionality.

China’s Censorship Policies

It was not for nothing, though, that Google pulled out of China. Beijing is notorious for the iron grip it tries to maintain on the cyberlife of its citizens, with a regulated search function a key element of that control.

Microsoft did not respond to the E-Commerce Times’ questions about possible censorship issues, although it did acknowledge that it will be providing English search to Baidu users.

Clearly, Microsoft will cooperate with the Chinese government in these matters, Greg Sterling, principal of Sterling Market Intelligence, told the E-Commerce Times. “I am sure that is nonnegotiable for the Chinese.”

Compliance, however, might be trickier than Microsoft realizes, he suggested. “I think a lot of it comes down to second guessing, as I doubt the Chinese have much written down on paper about its censorship practices.”

Search Share

The deal comes as Bing is gaining remarkable traction in its quest to grab market share away from Google. Bing increased its U.S. search market share about 75 percent year-over-year for May — largely at the expense of Google, according to recent figures from Compete. It grew from 9.7 percent in May 2010 to 17 percent in May 2011.

Microsoft released Bing for the iPad — an application updated with tablet-friendly search functionality — just as news about its deal with Baidu came to light.

It also has forged close ties with Facebook to build out its social search functionality.

Whither Google?

Given all this, might Google’s dominance in search be in question — if not now, then in the middle term?

There is no doubt that this deal will bring volume to Bing, “but there is still so much of this agreement with Baidu that is unclear,” Sterling said.

“First of all, we don’t know exactly how much English language search takes place in China. Also, will Microsoft be able to monetize those searches?” he wondered.

“Clearly, this connection is good news for Microsoft and bad for Google in terms of share, but it isn’t the same thing as Bing being favored,” Rob Enderle, principal of the Enderle Group, told the E-Commerce Times.

What it does illustrate, however, is that Microsoft can get these deals and Google can’t, which reverses the companies’ potential success opportunities in emerging markets, he said.

It is indeed conceivable “that over the next few years Microsoft could, on a worldwide basis, eclipse Google in terms of reach,” Enderle continued. “That would certainly hurt Google.”

Even if Microsoft weren’t able to monetize search in China, the end result would effectively be a vastly weaker Google and certainly worth Microsoft’s efforts, he said.

China’s Harsh Grip

All that said, a wild card could upend everything Microsoft is hoping to achieve — whatever that might be — with this deal. It’s not inconceivable that Bing could become embroiled in a human rights violation in China that would play out on the global stage.

That happened several years ago when Yahoo accommodated a Chinese government demand to turn over the identity of a user who had anonymously posted online materials relating to the Tiananmen Square massacre. The result was the arrest, torture and 10-year jail term of Wang Xiaoning.Although that was several years ago, the atmosphere in many emerging markets has changed little and likely has become even more volatile after the events in the Arab world this spring.

Indeed, it was only several days ago that Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt predicted more clashes on a global scale between repressive governments and search companies such as Google — clashes that could lead to the arrest and torture of its own employees.

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